“He was a fiddler, and consequently a rogue.” — Jonathan Swift
Mark O’Brien is a tall, striking and rather unassuming figure at most audio shows. He seems almost bemused by all the fuss and bother audiophiles make over his gear, but the fact is that his PA-based Rogue Audio makes some terrific audio equipment and routinely does so at prices that really ought to make his competitors blush.
This last bit is odd, if only in contrast. Mark tells me that his team not only builds all the gear in-house, but that they use regional providers to do what they can’t — like sourcing cases from a local metal shop. I find this almost incomprehensible, because it is a Truism that the “only way to maintain quality and keep prices low” is to outsource some or all production to various lower-cost providers, primarily out of China. Yeah, that one still makes me scratch my head. Now, whether it’s because Rogue does enough volume to keep costs low, or if Mark simply believes that “staying local” is good ethical business, it’s still remarkable. And laudable. And I can assure you, that even with that “increased expense”, the sound quality of Rogue’s equipment is top-shelf. Clearly, there’s something amiss with the Outsourcing Argument. Ahem. But … let’s put that aside for the moment.
What I have here is a stand-alone vacuum tube phono stage from Rogue, the Ares, a part of their “Titan” lineup. The Ares retails for $1,995, and as such, it is not inexpensive. But it’s also not in the I-could-have-bought-a-new-vehicle category either — and on the scale of absurdity that is the price structure of audiophilia, the Ares is most definitely on the “entry level” side of things. Which is kinda funny, because if you do ever graduate to an Ares, I’m pretty sure the only reason you’re ever going to “upgrade” it is because you’ve suffered some sort of catastrophic brain trauma. The Ares is, quite simply, fantastic.
I found the Ares through a review Jerry Siegel of 10Audio posted a couple of years back. This review was pretty exciting stuff and the verdict was pretty much unequivocal. A near-perfect component for under $2k? Well, alrighty then! Shortly thereafter, Stereophile’s Michael Fremer gave it the “official” stamp of approval, and the Ares currently sports a Class B rating (Stereophile, Vol.34 No.9),
That Rogue can offer this beauty for only $1995 makes you wonder what some of the other manufacturers are smoking.”
Well, well. Fremer has heard, compared and then actually reviewed a shit-ton of analog-related gear, more than just about everyone in the biz, so the fact that these two reviews didn’t exactly line up actually worked in Rogue’s favor. At least to me. Fremer tends to review on an absolute scale, and will cheerfully compare a $500 preamp to a $50,000 one without so much as a nod, hug, or by-your-leave. That’s interesting. Most folks tend to use a sliding-scale, where price/performance ratios kick in — 10Audio, for example, does this. Anyway, mismatch solved — and I was the Crayola-kid, coloring “interested” all over my own face (as much as I can as my daughter stole all the fuchsia … again).
What I was looking for with the Ares was a more “real-world” tool. I tend to think that relativity is something that needs to be at least acknowledged in a review. That is, some folks might like to know how a product compares to others at similar price; this speaks to the question of value if not to performance, at least, not per se. Comparing to some absolute reference is something additional – it’s like saying “Best Ever” and not “Best-In-Class”, and that is quite a bit harder to pull off with any convincing level of authority, unless you’re Fremer, as any evaluation of that judgement hinges on a rather breathtaking breadth of experience (aka, ‘warrant’). I’m not Fremer, and I don’t play him on TV either — you can tell us apart at a glance because I don’t use hair gel.
But I digress.
Turning back to the 10Audio review, I noticed that Jerry didn’t say anything about rolling the tubes, which is odd because we’ve all been told that tube-rolling is pretty much the first thing any True Audiophile does with any piece of gear that uses tubes. I mean, religious wars have been fought over NOS vs new stock, for example, with pretty much everyone agreeing that the XYZ unobtanium tubes from a forever-ago were/are/always-will-be The Best Ever and whatever you have pretty much blows, and because of your bad luck|poor planning, you’re never going to experience The True Potential without the Ultra-Mega XYZ unobtaniums in your system — which, of course, I happened to get for free because I knew this dude who was related to the dude who climbed the Himalayans naked and nearly died from hypothermia and was taken to a hidden temple where the beautiful virgin nuns gifted him with the Last Box On Earth as a parting token of their high esteem, which was totally lucky because that temple has since been wiped off the Earth by a meteorite and Too Bad You Missed Out, oh, and F*** You. Yes, it was curious that Jerry left all that out, since that story is pretty much required. I mean, it says it right there in bold on page 5 of the Big Book of Audiophile Reviewing. Ah, well. Opportunities missed.
Another oddity in the 10Audio review was the bootstrapping in of a second piece of gear, an external step-up transformer (SUT) unit from Bob’s Devices. I say ‘odd’ because the Ares actually includes SUTs from Cinemag (where Bob sources his SUTs from), so the urge to reach for an additional one was rather striking. Anyway, it was lucky he did. While the SUTs in the Ares were “not awful” (I’m paraphrasing) — he gave the Ares with these stock step-ups, a pair of Cinemag “Red” 3440′s, a 9.5 out of 10. But when he chose to bypass those entirely and run an external SUT, the 1131 from Bob’s, this clearly slammed him right in his happy place — he gave the combo a full 10 out of 10.
There’s this problem I have with point-based rating systems: it gives the illusion that there’s something non-arbitrary about it. Which is unfortunate, because it totally is arbitrary — this is a game of taste, and while I appreciate the enthusiasm, it wasn’t until I had a second opinion that I decided to jump on the Ares. But believe me, I took note of Jerry’s “complaint” about the stock SUTs — and when I talked to Mark about my interest in another Rogue Audio piece (I have the marvelous Cronus Magnum integrated here, too), I was curious as to whether he’d considered addressing “the gapingly huge performance gap” (and yes, I was laughing as I said it).
Turns out, he had. So much for me being a smart-ass! So, for an extra $400, Rogue Audio will make your Ares with Cinemag “Blue” 1254 SUTs instead of the stock “Red” 3340′s. I hadn’t heard about these — have you? It was in the “Blue” line, and referring to the Cinemag website, I got the titillating impression that the 1254 was a “replacement part” for the illustrious 1131 … so naturally, I called Cinemag directly to get the low-down. Mr Geren, the owner and maker over at chez Cinemag, told me that the differences have mainly to do with who makes them. The 1131s are personally made by Mr Geren himself, and while 1254s are made to the same spec and are all tested by Mr Geren, the 1254s are actually made by his expert team of winders down on the factory floor — and not Mr Geren. Subtle distinction, perhaps, but maybe one worthy of note. Whatever; the upshot is that the 1254 are of much higher quality than the standard “Reds” you get with the stock Ares — which was the unit that was reviewed both by Stereophile and by 10Audio.
Naturally, I got mine with the bling and shizzle “Blues”. Because that’s how I roll.
All the “About” Stuff
The Ares is very flexible: I can set gain, capacitance, and load via several sets of switches (no tiny jumpers, thankfully), all hidden below a tidy panel mounted on the top of the case, adjacent to where the tubes pop up through the chassis lid. Happily, you can get into this panel without a screwdriver, a thoughtful feature. It also sports an external dual-wire solid-state power supply that you can tuck safely away somewhere. The downside of the Ares, such as it is, is that it’s single-input and single-ended only.
The Ares isn’t going to win any beauty contests. It’s not ugly by any means, but it does have a rather utilitarian look. Yes, there’s a honkin’ big aluminum faceplate with a nice, deep engraving for the marque, but the bead-blasted black chassis is rather generic, shows visible screws and is, altogether, pretty plain-Jane (sorry, Jane). The box is a standard-width, and only about half the normal depth, which does not leave quite enough room on my shelf to tuck the power supply behind it, unfortunately.
Listening to (a) God
Now that we’ve gotten through all the pedestrian shinola, let’s get down to business. Because, sonically, the Ares is a stunner. Over the first 100 hours or so, the unit went from competent to extraordinary, with seamless top to bottom coherence, with remarkable speed, texture and great frequency extension. The Ares shows off some very good tone and timbre, almost right out of the box, though time expands the soundstage considerably. $2,400, eh? Maybe you should keep that under your hat — I’m not sure I want this getting out. This thing is good.
So, obviously, I rolled some tubes. I mean, it would have upset the Fabric of the Universe had I not. So, I pulled out the stock JJ 12AX7 and 12AU7 tubes and swapped the first for a pair of low-noise Sovtek 12AX7LPS. My tube guy, Jim McShane, says that these have “excellent tonal balance and the low hum spiral wound filament make these my go-to phono tube”. We paired them with some B749/12AU7 Genalex Gold Lions, which he says “add some warmth to the LPS; the tubes have excellent synergy.” With this $150 of new tubes in place, everything took a satisfying step up the Audio Ladder of Sonic Excellence. Major differences? Mid-range and up. The bass was already punchy, but now gained a bit more definition and the improvements widened from there. Mids were more round — that is, more dimensional — and the there was more fill in the upper mids. Treble was sweeter, too. No glare, no harshness, no grain, no “whitishness” that the 10Audio review talked about. I think the word I wrote down was “succulent”.
I started with Permanent Waves, the MoFi release for Rush’s most popular album. Easily, this was the best I’ve heard this album sound — I was repeatedly struck by how full this album sounded. It’s been 23 years and a lot of bruises since I’ve seen Rush in concert, but this disc was totally convincing. Great bass, percussion was spot on, and the band was on fire. Like, “monkey wearing a tuxedo made out of bacon riding a cyborg unicorn with a lightsaber for the horn on the tip of a space shuttle closing in on Mars, while ingulfed in flames … and in case you didn’t know that’s pretty dang sweet.” Or, you could just say I was digging the sound. You know. If you’re boring. Up to you.
I blitzed through Neal Young’s Live at Massey Hall and was impressed, not just with the quality of the vinyl, but with the silences. What a fantastic classic album and a breathtaking pressing; this pre is startlingly quiet — and neither the stock tubes nor the swap-ins I brought to the party in any way altered the seductive silences I was extracting. Moving to La Segunda from Sera Una Noche (from MA-Recordings), the ambient cues were zinging around my room. Like most of Todd Garfinkle’s recordings, the Sera Una Noche LP was recorded in a “live space” (instead of a studio), but capturing the full scale of the church it was recorded in is a little unnerving. This is what They mean by “audiophile recordings”, kids. If you haven’t moseyed on over to MA-Recordings, you owe yourself the treat. Continuing along this line, I recently scored a copy of the Reference Recording’s release of Doug MacLeod’s There’s a Time. Played back through the Ares, the soundstage was deep and the gravel in MacLeod’s voice and the bite of the strings of his guitar were as close to live as I’ve heard in my reference system. Happy happy, joy joy.
Just a side note: I did get a chance to use the 1131 SUT from Bob’s Devices with the Ares, using one of Bob’s heavily shielded silver-core cables. The differences between running the my .25mV Ortofon Windfeld into the Ares direct (via the on-board 1254 SUTs) and with the outboard 1131 were, to say the least, subtle. If pushed, I’d say that the 1131 was my preferred path as it centered the tonal landscape a bit lower, and more solidly in the mid-range with slightly fuller upper-mids. Run direct, there was fractionally more air and detail, but the whole was ever so slightly leaner through the upper mids. I wouldn’t swear to that, though, and we’re really splitting hairs. Given that the 1131 and the complimentary cable cost as much as the Ares itself, I’d skip it — again, the differences aren’t great enough to warrant the move on their own.
In fact, it’s a little alarming how thoroughly this competes with my reference phono, the $9,500 white-label Thöress sold by TW Acustic, called “Raven”. Directly compared, the Ares feels more planted, with a more solid foundation for room-shaking bass, while the Thöress may feel a bit more billowy (depending on how you like to use that word), as if the center of sonic gravity was a bit higher up on the scale. That is, the Ares ceded a bit of spaciousness and air to the European, and took a half-step back to its eerily holographic mid-range layering. Saying that, it’s important to note that this isn’t in anyway an indictment of the American — the Thöress is my reference and a world-class performer. At nearly 4x the cost of my tricked-out Ares, it’s not so much that the Thöress is better, it’s more a question of why that gap isn’t much larger. It’s an uncomfortable question.
A barbaric “Yawp!”
Or not. I can’t think of a better phono stage at this price. I’ve already said the Ares is a stunner and I stand by that statement. While there are, objectively, better products in this space, the sound quality I get with the Ares makes me truly disinclined to pursue them. Don’t like the aesthetic? I can understand that — but understand that we will still have to mock you for your vanity. For the rest of us, this is a product (or more specifically, a version of a product) that is at least aspirational for most real-world audiophiles, and once attained, will happily anchor a vinyl system that will not only please but shock. I’m loving mine — now it’s time to go build a vinyl system around it!